National

Online project a boon to Native American history

Cherokee Indian Tommy Martinez takes part in the 24th Annual Cherokee County Indian Festival & Mother’s Day Powwow in Canton, Georgia, Sunday, May 12, 2013.
Cherokee Indian Tommy Martinez takes part in the 24th Annual Cherokee County Indian Festival & Mother’s Day Powwow in Canton, Georgia, Sunday, May 12, 2013. MCT

In a significant development for online Native American history, the Oklahoma Historical Society, the National Archives at Fort Worth and the genealogy website Ancestry.com, have opened a window onto the forced relocation of five major tribes in the 1800s.

Their collaboration provides access to previously hard-to-obtain information about a significant chapter in the history of the American Indian – the government-ordered exodus under the Removal Act of 1830 of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” from the Southeast to Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma. The purpose was to open their lands to white settlers.

The tribes were labeled “civilized” by the federal government because their tribal structures, such as their governments and judicial systems, as well as many cultural norms like religion and literacy, mirrored European models.

The tribes affected were: the Cherokee, from North Carolina and Georgia; the Chickasaw, from Tennessee and northern Mississippi; the Choctaw, from Mississippi; the Creek, from Alabama and Georgia; and the Seminole, from Florida.

Although 60,000 Indians were settled in eastern Oklahoma, the relocation was not absolute, since some tribal members avoided the journey while others subsequently returned.

People wanting to trace their lineage who think they may be descended from one of the five tribes can do so through Ancestry.com for records that were once hard to get.

“The vast majority of genealogists who visit the Archives’ Fort Worth facility are researching the five tribes,” said Meg Hacker, director of the Archival Operations at the National Archives at Fort Worth.

Some people want to know if they have Indian blood or to find out more about relatives. Some are looking to adopt children and want to be sure they are not violating tribal law.

“There’s a wide variety of reasons people do research,” said Hacker. “People are always excited about being able to trace their ancestry.”

But the data kept by the National Archives and the Oklahoma Historical Society, which had a trove of Five Civilized Tribes records, including birth and marriage histories, were not digitized. Ancestry.com, an online genealogy database, proposed the joint project and bore the costs of scanning the records.

“We wouldn’t have the funds or the time to digitize all these records,” said Laura Martin, deputy director of research at the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Much of the data were in microfiche or on the original documents, so the website will give many people hungry for information access for the first time.

“It’s very, very exciting,” said Martin. “We’re honored to be part of it and to share Oklahoma’s history with the rest of the world.”

Added Hacker, “You can do a lot of that history at your fingertips.”

Lisa Arnold, senior content strategist at Ancestry.com, said the online information about the five tribes now covers the years 1830-1940 and supplements records the website already had.

“What we’ve brought on board now completes the picture,” she said.

Ancestry.com is a for-profit company, but Hacker said that most public libraries have subscriptions so patrons can research the site free of charge. In addition, the research is also free for visitors at various National Archives facilities around the country, including Kansas City, Mo., San Francisco and Seattle.

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